Last night, I saw Diamanda Galas perform at the MCA Chicago, the first of two sold-out solo performances of works from various points in her career; “Were You There When They Cruxified My Lord?”. It’s the third time I’ve managed to make it to one of her shows.
The first was in Austin, in the early 90’s. The Plague Mass, I think. Maybe not. Was it Vena Cava? Likely it was neither, but simply a performance of her work. I know we saw Galas in Austin in 1991, 1992 or 1993. And I know that I walked out of the theatre when it was over, quivering, suddenly aware there was a great deal about suffering and rage—and even more about art—than all my worldly undergraduate reading, writing and earnest interest had found. So even if I can’t give you details about which pieces she performed, I can close my eyes and remember the sight of her, coiled and taut,
Only a few years later, I saw her perform The Sporting Life in Chicago (as I recall, the Vic, but memory is a hazy thing). After the lights came up, I was hanging around the edge of the stage—my date nowhere to be seen—and the man next to me asked, in an incredulous, awed tone, “Who was that?” I answered, equally incredulous, “Do you mean Diamanda Galas?” Yes, he said. He said he’d seen John Paul Jones’ name on the marquee walking past the other week and couldn’t pass up the ticket. “Oh,” I said, “the guitarist. . . . great show, huh?” “Man, that was something else,” he answered.
And Thursday night, I saw her again. It’s astounding that her voice, while clearly older, is not diminished. For the first two songs, I was vibrating. By the end of the night, I swear, she had a blown a speaker with on her voice and the piano. She performed (Not in this order): O Death, Birds of Death, Let My People Go, Let’s Not Chat About Despair, Artemis, Missing Dates, Be Sure that My Grave Is Kept Clean, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, Der Stunde Kommt, A Man and a Woman Go Through the Cancer Ward, The Cats Will Know, in Despair, Fernand, Amsterdam Abiuxe Petra, A La Sierra de Armenia. Quite thrilling, all of them. It’s amazing the physicality of her performing—not just how her voice moves and what it evokes, but how her jaw distends and her face seems to reshape itself behind and around the sounds. At times Ms. Galas attacks the piano—sometimes she literally hits it with open palms, not on the keys. Even when she’s rolling quick notes, flicking them out from under her hands, it’s not a light touch. There is so much power in her music.
After the first few pieces, she grabbed a bottle of water, put it down and poised over the keys. She drew in her breath, stopped, tsked her tongue and started speaking. Ms Galas made a vague reference, which implied had gotten negative reviews for failing to introduce the songs/explain the foreign languages/chat between pieces recently. The first she offered was about “The Cats Will Know”, her setting of the poem by the Italian Cesare Pesare. It’s one of his suicide poems, written and left behind in the hotel where he killed himself, she told us. After talking how he had been imprisoned as a subversive, she said “He killed himself because he was predisposed . . . to do that.” A sentence about his work. “And then he fell in love with a two-bit Hollywood . . . actress. And that was that, [pause] It’s true! Constance Doooooowling. Anyway, so much for her.”
Just so, Ms. Galas told random anecdotes and offered odd tidbits about some of the pieces when they ended. You so often hear about the intensity of her performance, the otherwordly and demonic nature of her voice, how visceral the experience is, but you never hear about how charismatic she is. But–of course–she’s charming. You don’t get to be so successful a force without it.